I remember the heat the day I came home. I leaned my forehead against my parents’ picture window and the heat came through the glass. Tulsa. For a few days I drove, sailing south on 169 and coming back, sweeping across on the Broken Arrow, retracing old lines, bearing down with new force. My parents were very kind. But I decided I had to go to the bars.
In the city of my elementary school, and of my good blue- carpeted church, this was a step I had never taken. I knew where to go: across from the Mexican restaurant where my parents now ate after- church lunch there was a row of bars— in Tulsa’s warehouse district. They didn’t card here. I parked, I could hear my dashboard clock tick. And even as I watched, three teenage girls in peasant dresses filed out of the Blumont and lit their cigarettes. The sun was setting, the brick wall caught fire. The three girls stood there for some reason, as if in front of a firing squad, squinting in the sun.
At college maybe I became conceited about Tulsa, mentioning at just the right moments that I was raised Southern Baptist, had shot guns recreationally, had been a major Boy Scout— I may have agreed, when people smiled, and pretended that Tulsa was a minor classic, a Western, a bastion of Republican moonshine and a hotbed, equally, of a kind of honky-tonk bonhomie. Well, there was no bonhomie, that I had ever found: the silence of the suburban front yards washed up right to the roots of the skyscrapers, in Tulsa. In fact I had never seen so many people from my hometown actually talking to each other, and shrieking, as here in this bar.
Uninitiated, having experimented only at the drinks tables of upperclassman parties, I didn’t know how to order. “Vodka,” I just said.
The bartender was careful not to look at me as he set it down.
Situated at my little table, flipping my sketchpad open, I did my pencil in curlicues. On the barstools behind me I had an older man, I imagined him with a comb in his pocket, teasing a pair of women (the shrieking). And a lizard- voiced youth who from the pool table across the room was trying to carry on a conversation with the bartender.
“I need a million dollars,” the older gentleman was saying. “That’s all.” And the women shrieked.
I kept my head down. The bar filled up. Dropping a napkin over my sketchpad I rose to get another drink. But sat back down, slowly. I’d seen someone I knew. She sat slumped, looking enviably at home at the Blumont. She had gone to high school with me. She sat listening to another, smaller girl. While she listened she wore a flat, patient expression, her mouth fl at, her eyeballs fl at and somewhat skeptical. Her name was going to come to me but I tried to stop it. I wasn’t prepared to make friends with this person today. And yet I remembered all about her: who her friends had been, the stairwell where they ate lunch . . .
Edith Altman. Once I remembered her name I stood automatically. “Are you Edith Altman?”
“I was always with Tom Price,” I volunteered, “and Jason Brewster and Ronnie Tisdale.” Perversely, I was naming the most unpopular friends I could think of. “Or Rob Pomeroy.”
“Rob Pomeroy, the unabomber?”
I smiled, a little stung. “Yeah,” I said, “totally. Though I seem to recall that Rob always made fun of the way I dressed.”
She sort of laughed. Her friend stared.
When I walked into the Blumont the number of people in Tulsa I was eager to hang out with had been zero. To me Tulsa was a handful of coevals from church; a troop of boys from Boy Scouts; and of course four hundred people from Franklin High School. My “group” of high school friends was worthless: an unpopularity klatch, a rump group— we had clung together to survive, but never took any pleasure in each other.
Edith leaned way back, as if something had occurred to her. “You were Emma’s boyfriend.”
Emma had been the valedictorian.
I think I had been a little famous for the puppy-dog way I followed Emma around, in the last spring of high school. I had no idea where she was this summer, I was happy to tell Edith— probably some internship.
Now I stood managing to look a little bored, with one foot kicked behind me, pretending to balance like a ballerina in front of Edith and her friend.
“ Sorry— this is my friend Cam.” Edith began to explain who I was. “So Jim was a mystery in high school. Emma started dating him and that was the last we ever saw of her. Nobody knew who Jim was. He refused to hang out with other people.”
I was going to turn and go—I was not going to be patronized—while Edith carried on and this girl Cam just sat there patting her bangs. I would leave them alone. I could say that I said hello.
But Edith asked to see my sketchpad. “You should get us some shots,” she suggested.
“Read the poems,” I called back from the bar, “the drawings are just like, you know, realism! I could take lessons or something!”
When I ordered not simply another vodka, but three “shots,” the bartender smiled. He had seen me making friends. Back at the table, Edith was taking my poems seriously: “These are actually good,” she said.
Awkwardly, we didn’t do the shots right away. We started talking poets—until, I think, I got too sweeping about whom I did and didn’t like, and it was suggested we all take a walk.
“The BOK Tower is so beautiful” is the first thing I said outside. It had gotten dark, and the skyscrapers floated on the other side of the tracks like magnificent holograms.
Cam, I now learned, was not from Tulsa. She had come home with Edith from college. “Isn’t Tulsa weird?” I asked her. “On that side of the tracks, we build up all the skyscrapers, but immediately on this side of the tracks it’s nothing but a warehouse district.”
“Cam’s from Hartford.”
“Hartford must be awesome,” I said.
Cam pointed across the tracks. “So is that where the cool kids hang out?” Under the shadows, opening out between the skyscrapers, lay a half- dim square, dominated by a huge, clanking flagpole. Moths were visible in the security lights, and we could hear what sounded like skateboards, rolling in the dark. The Center of the Universe, I believed it was called. For its Guinness Records powers of echo. But I had never felt I had permission to show up there.
“Do you guys want to go across?” I asked.
“We were actually thinking we should go dancing.”
So we were too old for the Center of the Universe— I assimilated this information painlessly.
Edith— who was trying to entice Cam as much as me— explained that it was Retro Night at the Cain’s Ballroom. “It’s from Prohibition,” she told Cam. “Like the oldest club in Tulsa.”
I lifted up one finger. “Can we make a pit stop at the Blumont first?”
“Well, we can get drinks at the Cain’s,” Edith said. I saw her smile to herself.